‘People v. O.J. Simpson’ Star Sterling K. Brown on Playing Chris Darden and How His View of the Verdict Changed

American Crime Story: The People v.
Courtesy of FX

The cast list of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is star-studded, but in the key role of Chris Darden, executive producer Ryan Murphy says he knew from the beginning he wanted a fresh face. Enter Sterling K. Brown, who landed the role in an audition.

And that audition process, according to executive producer and writer Larry Karaszewski, was an arduous one. Finding the right Chris Darden was difficult.

“It was the hardest role to cast,” Karaszewski recalls. “Some black actors would be like, ‘I don’t want to play Chris Darden,’ because Chris Darden had a bad rep in the black community. It was hard to find someone who could play the legal scenes, having the speeches and things like that, and have the humanity but also the force. We saw hundreds of people and we just couldn’t find him. We were thinking, ‘Maybe let’s go to South Africa and look for some actors there.’ All of a sudden Sterling came in and was really good. We did a test with him and Sarah [Paulson, who plays Marcia Clark] and there was a spark. We yelled. We got so lucky.”

Brown says fitting in with an ensemble cast chockablock with well-known actors like Paulson, John Travolta and Courtney B. Vance was one of biggest challenges he faced.

“I was the new kid on the block working with people who’d established themselves on the A-list,” he says. “Every day I was well aware I had to step it up or else these people are going to act me off the screen.”

Of all the roles in this series, the role of Christopher Darden may the most difficult, because he is poised on so many different fault lines. You portray that calculation, hesitancy, frustration, really well. Was it intimidating to try to figure out how to come at all of that?

It’s so interesting. I was watching an interview of him on Charlie Rose, and he was talking about something that came to be known as the Darden Dilemma — whether or not it was a conflict of interest for a black prosecutor to prosecute a black defendant. His perspective on the whole thing was, the criminal justice system is completely porous when we’re able to inhabit all aspects of that system. Why can I not be a black prosecutor? If you can’t be in all of those roles, something is clearly wrong.

The evidence led him to believe that O.J. Simpson committed a double murder. So the maligning, the ostracization that he received from the black community, I mean… he got death threats. He was called an Uncle Tom, a sellout. For someone who cared so deeply about his community, who is from Richmond, California, and who had worked in the special investigations division to prosecute crooked police officers — it broke his heart to be treated that way.

When I see interviews of him now, I do believe that the specter of the case lingers most significantly with him — even more so than Marcia [Clark] — because he never saw that coming. He was warned by his family, but he said he knew in his mind that if he did his job with integrity, people could only see [that O.J. was guilty]. But that’s not what it was.

O.J. Simpson was such a large symbol and we saw, as the prosecution, a man who was guilty of murder. What black people saw was a symbol of someone who had actualized the American dream, who had started in poverty in the Bay Area and who had become a Heisman Trophy winner, an NFL star, was in commercials and TV and movies. He made it. Why would you try to bring him down? That’s how black America reacted to it. Unfortunately for Christopher Darden, he had a rough, rough go of it.

He deeply cared about the African-American community, and he also cared about justice, and this was not a case where you could reconcile those things.

Absolutely. No. In his book, he said, black people are intelligent, and if we present them with the facts, if we show them the evidence as it’s been presented to us, they can’t help but lead to the same logical conclusion. But it was two years after Rodney King. And black men and black women have all had too many experiences with the police departments where we felt neither protected nor served. So it was easy to understand how misconduct could play a role in the taking down of this ostensibly reputable African-American man.

Was there a particular episode or scene that stands out for you when you were making this show?

The press has seen episodes one through six. We’re very proud of those. Episode nine — I remember that episode. You know what it’s like when you watch that second-to-last episode of “Game of Thrones” and you’re like, “Oh s–t!” I feel like our second-to-last episode is sort of like that powder-keg moment as well. I won’t say too much about it, but there are a couple of examples where Darden’s passion and his frustration with this whole process gets to him and he can’t help but let it out. I remember that very well, and I hope it came across well.

One of the best things the show does is illuminate these gulfs and gaps that exist among white people and black people, between men and women, and yet it doesn’t demonize anyone. It doesn’t shy away from showing how people and groups fail to comprehend each other, but it doesn’t make anyone the singular or one-dimensional bad guy.

That is the best compliment we could receive. Empathy begins with understanding life from another person’s perspective. Nobody has an objective experience of reality. It’s all through our own individual prisms. If that conversation can begin, if mainstream America can understand why black America was happy with that verdict, if black America can understand why mainstream America was offended by that verdict, then at least people can see things from each other’s perspective and we can find some sort of middle ground.

Because things are still so polarized. With all the lack of indictments that have happened in Ferguson, in Staten Island, in Cleveland, in Baltimore, and North Charleston — it’s shocking. I have two black sons, and I often think to myself, “How do I ensure their safety? How do I make sure that they can navigate this world and have every opportunity available to them that any other American can have?”

Your chemistry with Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark was so critical, yet you were cast through an audition and didn’t meet until you were on set. How did you pull that off?

The parallel between my relationship with Sarah and Darden’s relationship with Marcia Clark is uncanny. They had only had a tangential relationship at the beginning of the trial, and they became very dear friends. That’s the same case for Sarah and me. Through this process, we spent a lot of time together. I’m a very curious person, she’s a very curious person. We’d ask each other questions about process first and foremost. Then we’d start talking. Her chair was next to my chair. During breaks we’d shoot the breeze. A relationship developed. We tickled each other. We laughed with each other. We asked very provocative questions of one another and a friendship developed. It’s hard to develop chemistry when you don’t have a relationship to base that on. It’s so interesting the way the show developed. It also gives room for the growing relationship between Chris and Marcia.

It must have helped that you were on the same side vs. the so-called “Dream Team.”

The strange thing about it: We pseudo walk in these people’s shoes. There would be things that transpired for the both of us that would be so frustrating — things that Ito did. It became very personal. We thought we had the evidence on our side, ways we saw the case slip away from us. It didn’t take a lot of acting — how do we play the frustration in this moment? We needed to keep our heads above water. It was very difficult seeing the things they went through in this trial. It was frustrating. There were times when I’d say, do you think there’s anything I could have done differently? It played out the way it played out.

How much research did you do?

Pretty deep. We both walked around with books constantly — she had Marcia Clark’s book in her hand, I had Chris’ book in my hand. We would both reference Toobin’s book from time to time. We’d be looking at footage on YouTube. It was non-stop. Both of us were of the mind we didn’t want to mimic our characters. We wanted to give a strong suggestion of them, what people recognized from public records. We took them behind the scenes. We thought it would be easier to follow us on that journey, their life behind what they knew. We were in it constantly. She’d have her headphones on listening to Marcia’s voice. I’d have my headphones on. It was a nonstop sort of thing

Did you meet the real Chris Darden?

No, I didn’t. I tried, though. I attempted a friend request on Facebook, with no response. He was teaching law school in L.A. but he wasn’t doing that when we began. He was in private practice in Culver City, So I did a yelp search. I got a phone number and I called it. It turned out it was a cell phone. It was 10:30 at night so I hung up. I got a text about 20 minutes later but I was asleep. The text said, what’s up, who’s this. But I didn’t get it until the morning. I sent him a text saying who I was, that I was trying to portray him with as much accuracy as possible. And he respectfully declined, he didn’t respond to the text. I don’t know if we’ll ever get a chance to meet or not. I hope he’s pleased with the representation if he indeed watches it. It’s a difficult period of time in his life and I can understand how he’s not eager to relive that epoch.

If you could talk to him, what would you ask?

The nature of his relationship with Marcia, how it grew over time. Where there specific incidents that made it feel closer or further away? After the glove incident, he said in his book he felt frozen out because they felt he made the mistake. It was his call. How was he able to get back in the good graces of everyone?

Given all the research you did, what did you learn about Darden that surprised you?

One of the things that touched me about Chris, knowing that this brother passed away from AIDS during the trial. He had a brother who lived in Richmond who he tried to visit as often as possible. But he couldn’t see as much as he wanted to because he was immersed in the trial of the century. He also had a little girl right as he was graduating from law school who was in Richmond and he would go back and forth from L.A. all the time to be a part of her life. He was a dedicated father. It said a lot to me about who he was as a person. That he was a man of integrity. This was a man who tried to do the right thing. He tried to do the right thing within the confines of this trial as well. He and Marcia, their largest shortcoming was they weren’t necessarily aware of the court of public opinion. How powerful it was. They thought they were trying a murder case within the walls of the courtroom. The defense team knew to have that savvy. They were camera-ready. Chris and Marcia were not camera ready at the beginning of the trial. They didn’t realize just how important and powerful that influence would be in the trial. Cochran was allowed to change the interior of O.J.’s house, to take down naked pictures of Paula Barbieri, and put up civil rights pictures and show a completely different picture to the jury of who O.J. Simpson was. That that was permissible boggles the mind.

Did this experience change your opinion of the verdict?

After six months of playing Chris Darden, it’s very hard for me to separate my views from his. Knowing the evidence that he was presented, and a lot of the evidence that wasn’t even allowed in the trial, it’s hard for me to see anything other than O.J. Simpson was guilty of a double murder. As a young black man at the time, I rejoiced at the verdict. And all of my black classmates rejoiced right along with me. And all of the other classmates who were not black looked at me as if we were crazy. I think what was difficult for them to understand was it was not a matter of innocence or guilt for me. Here was an example of the system working for someone who looks like me and that was a cause for rejoicing. Now it is 20 years later and I have a bit more perspective on the whole situation. It was not in the forefront of my mind that two people had died in the most brutal fashion possible. I do not rejoice the verdict 20 years later.

What do you hope people take away from this show?

It’s based on a true story. We take dramatic license in 10 hours of television to tell a year’s worth of history. I hope people can learn from it and go back and do some of their own research and learn things about it. With any sort of entertainment you hope people are entertained. I know that sounds strange in regards to a murder case. I hope they’re educated. and hopefully people are inspired to be better versions of themselves and make the world a better place. I hope people can present and respect other people’s opinions. I hope white America can see why black America rejoiced. I hope black America can see why white America was appalled. That only happens when people start to see things from another individual’s perspective.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.